Gold-Ringed Syringe

“Put it in me already,” Nell says through the strap in her teeth. I tease her, waving it slowly in front of her, the beautiful gold needle that has a ring to one side for one’s thumb, to keep it steady, a ring which is almost an exact replica of those surrounding our fingers.

“We’re celebrating today, remember?” I say. She nods vigorously, her veins popping out, her head pulling back to pull the pure leather belt around her upper arm even tighter. I’m worried she’ll end up cutting off her bloodstream entirely. “Calm down.” It’s a command, not a request, and she lets the strap loosen just enough. “Good. Good girl.”

She moans, and her eyes are brimming with tears, which she learned to bring on artificially in some acting class in college, but it convinces me and I finally put the needle to her vein, slip it under the skin and draw back, see the blood, no air bubbles, and push back, plunging all the way down, all the way into her. She lets the strap loose, or it falls out of her mouth, and her eyes roll up to the ceiling and she smiles lazily before even that amount of work is too much for muscles and her face goes slack. I pick her up – I’m taller and stronger than her, always have been, they call me the butch, even though they don’t know what a top she is in the bedroom – and lay her down on the couch.

I watch her, ignoring her occasional mumbles about things we need to remember to do, or things she wants me to do to her now. She’s not gone to the world, not entirely, but she is in the land of cotton wool lightness and lying down keeps her safe. Plenty of people walk around like this, but Nell and I have never understood how it’s possible.

My phone buzzes on the coffee table and I pick it up. It’s one of my clients. I automatically begin to pace.

“Hello, Tonya, how are you?”

She tells me how she is and begins to ask about her portfolio, about what I’ve done with her investments this week. She’s not seeing the rise she wants to see.
“Tonya, darling, don’t you trust me? I would never steer you wrong. I can tell you that the two new companies are going places, you just need to wait until the end of the week, you’ll see – they have something new up their sleeve is my guess because they’ve been throwing a lot of hints out there.”

She continues to complain and I sit back down on the coffee table and only listen with half an ear. I watch Nell, smiling again sometimes, her eyes opening and closing slowly, an air bubble popping through her lips and making her simulate a giggle though no sound comes out. I reassure Tonya, finally, and tell her I’ll call her on Friday. I need to stop giving clients my cell number, I remind myself, but they need it, unfortunately. I’m extraordinary at what I do – otherwise how could Nell and I afford this place, this syringe, the clean as fuck dope – and people who make money off of me are paying commissions up the wazoo so I better be available to wipe their ass if need be.

There is only one day I don’t answer the phone, and that’s the day when Nell does it to me. We take turns, once a week her, once a week me. We’re careful. We love it. We still go to meetings, and fake our way through chip after chip. Every one we get we bore a hole into and string it on this long ribbon that we hang on our balcony. It rattles, our personal version of wind chimes.
We like the meetings, the validation, the friends we’ve made, the comradery. And we feel fine.

Once a week for each of us. That’s it. That’s nothing. And it doesn’t count because we monitor one another. We’ll never hit bottom again. Bottom wasn’t fun, and we’re both happy to be here, up top. Nell’s massage business is booming and I’m back on Wall Street like nothing ever happened. So what if I met Nell at rehab. So what if you’re not supposed to date there, or in your first year after. It’s okay. We both talk to our sponsors about it. You don’t run away from the love of your life when you encounter her, no matter where you both are.

Nell raises her head a few hours later. I’m curled up at the other end of the couch with a book, playing with the syringe between my fingers. I’ve always had restless hands. “More?” she asks. I smile, and go and get the rest of the kit. What’s one more time in one day? Still nothing.

The Barista

cafeSee the scene: a table made of real wood; chairs too; a drone of unintelligible conversation punctured by ire and laughter (they make themselves heard above any din); a man, a woman; a beer, a coffee; one tipsy, one too sober for her own good.

See me, behind a counter also made of real wood. Reinforced with metal hinges. The structure must be sound. It has to fulfill health and safety regulations. Our kitchen has no wood, I believe. Wood absorbs moisture, I imagine. There is varnish on the counter, to prevent this very problem.

I watch them. They are no more or less interesting than the others here. But I take turns, and give each table its due. Even the empty ones. Especially the empty ones. Those allow me to think about what I saw, what I heard.

But now, it is this couple’s turn. Theirs, at their wooden table, one tipsy and happy, the other listlessly merry, There are many kinds of happiness in the world. Theirs is momentary.

“Can I tell you a story idea? I’m tipsy.”
“Please!”
“Okay, so-” but the tipsy one is cut off, because I am there, not-so-surreptitiously picking up the empties, mug and bottle alike. He is beautiful, this man, and I want him to notice me. I smile. He says, “Thank you.” I stop smiling. The sober one doesn’t look at me at all. She is checking her phone. She’s one of the workaholics. I’ve seen her here before. Only memorable because of her piercings. She is not interesting. She is only average.

I wait until they leave, and I follow them. The beautiful man, he gets on the subway heading downtown. The same subway I take.

I will look for him now. In every car. On every ride. He is not more or less interesting than the others I see every day. He is only more beautiful. No one is interesting. This I have learned from countless observations of the fourteen wooden tables, three-seat bar, and twelve-seater old slab of concrete where students clack on keyboards and read Kierkegaard with furrowed brows.

No one is interesting.

 

 

 

Image / Beshef

Sandra & Richard: character sketches

It was Sandra’s pleasure, on certain nights of the year when she had saved up a few extra dollars from her minimum-wage job as a security camera technician at a large office building, to put on her most expensive-looking blouse and the pants that clung tightly to her in ways that made her uncomfortable on other days, and take herself out to a bar, for a drink or three.

Richard was the bartender at her favorite place, a swanky watering hole for journalists, for which Sandra had a particular fondness that she was pretty certain had to do with an old television show she had watched as a child, sitting in her father’s lap, in which the backroom dealings between journalists and politicians was never overtly made clear and which had conveyed to Sandra a strange idea that journalists were at the end of the day people with integrity and a need to tell the truth. Richard knew Sandra from their days in grade school, though they hadn’t met again until she’d started coming to the bar. He pretended he didn’t know her, since she clearly didn’t recognize him. When he told her his name – he made it his practice to introduce himself to people who frequented the bar, since it usually increased his tip intake – she had looked him squarely in the eyes and had shaken his hand with vigor, hers more calloused than his though he was certain his were stronger, and had said it was a pleasure to meet him.

She hadn’t been aware of him in grade school either, but then again, those years had been her queen bee era. She had been popular, a great wit among her friends, and she had had the special ability to put people down and make them love her at the same time. Sandra didn’t think much about her childhood, because she had never come to really appreciate how magical her grade school days had been. They had always been a distraction, and a poor one at that, from a home in which her brother was both intellectually and physically disabled and required the vast majority of her parents’ attention as well as her own.

Richard was, to put it simply, in love with Sandra. He didn’t know her very well, not in the sense of understanding her dreams and ambitions or her fears and foibles. But he knew enough about her to recognize that she came into the bar with the same clothes every time, indicating a wardrobe lacking in the finery she yearned for. He knew enough to recognize in her a come-hither look that screamed of loneliness as well as a lack of trust, as she rarely agreed to go home with any of the men she talked to in his bar. Her instincts and her sense of self-preservation were keen, Richard decided, or else she would let herself be hurt over and over again. Instead, she kept a close watch on her heart and kept her mind tucked away in a safe place from which it could observe, judge, and make calculated decisions.

Sandra herself would never have imagined anyone was looking at her so hard. She couldn’t fathom anyone taking such an interest. And besides, she wasn’t at the bar to find someone like Richard – a minimum wage worker like herself. She yearned, not for glamour, not even for safety, but for a mindset so different from her own that it needn’t worry about paying rent, buying groceries, credit card debt racking up. She yearned for a carelessness of mind that would have the space to be wrapped up in her, her, only her.

The Man in the Park

The duck waddled across the expanse of green grass until it reached the fountain. Its head was a dark and glossy green that shone in the sunlight. As it slid into the water gracefully, it knew itself to be beautiful.

A man dressed in two pairs of pants, three button-down shirts, a windbreaker and an overcoat stared at the duck hungrily. His hair, some might say, looked like a nest. But the man knew that no nest would be as messy, as greasy, as greasy and limp as his hair was. The man knew that nests were works of art.

Watching the duck ruffled its feathers, the man sank to his knees. He hadn’t eaten in two days, but there was a fair amount of cheap wine in his system and he felt dizzy. He wished he’d saved some of the money he’d gotten from begging at subway stops and bought some seeds or oats to feed the ducks with. He knew that bread wasn’t good for them.

He tried to remember the last time that he’d handled a bird, helped to fix its wing or given it its shots. He couldn’t remember quite how he came to be this way, dressed in everything he owned, with only a few keepsakes stuffed into his pockets from a life he didn’t know how to live anymore.

Lying down on the grass, he shut his eyes and tried to catch a nap before the inevitable policeman would tell him to get up and move on.

Paige [Flash Fiction]

Paige Crandall was frequently to be found standing on the docks, her short hair ruffling up a little in the breeze, a cigarette grasped loosely between the finger and thumb of her right hand. Her hair had gone grey early in life; she couldn’t be much older than forty, but with a head of steely bristles. Her clothing was an almost daily uniform of overalls over a white men’s t-shirt. In the winter, she’d wear a thick black coat over that, but it was usually unbuttoned, and the overalls and t-shirt could be seen underneath.

Nobody knew what to make of her. The residents of the dockside neighborhood knew her both by sight and by name, but none could quite recall how or when they’d ever met her, even though she knew all of them perfectly, and on her way home from the docks would often call out to them, asking this one how his wife fared and that one whether her son was coming home from boarding-school soon. She was friendly, you see. Positively charming, in her own way, although her smile was always tired and her eyes were careworn.

She lived in a small apartment above what used to be stables, but, of course, there were no horses there anymore. The stables were converted into a garage, and that was where Paige worked, mending old engines and changing tires. Everyone said she was the best mechanic in town. Some wondered why, in a dockside city like theirs, she mended cars and not boats. She liked the docks so much, they said, so why didn’t she want to work there?

There used to be rumors about her. People said that she took lovers often. They said she was a feminist. Some said she’d had a family once but that they’d been in an accident – whether they drowned or were killed in a car crash was greatly disputed. Someone said that she’d never had a family of her own but had been single for a long time. Nobody knew the truth, and eventually, they grew tired of talking about it. She was so nice, never hurt a fly, that there didn’t seem to be much point in speculating anymore. It would only lead to circular, pointless arguments, and besides, there were more interesting people moving in all the time for the neighborhood bar-frequenters to talk about.

Paige knew that it wouldn’t last, though. Her past was coming, she knew, and it would come from the ocean. When it did, when it caught up with her, the rumors would start flying around again. She only hoped that people would remember her kindness and interest in them when that happened.

Paparazzi [Character Study]

Mick groaned at the blinking icon on his camera’s screen; his battery was nearing empty and he had nowhere to recharge it. It was a heavy thing, one of those cameras that impress people because they make a click-click sound when they snap a photo. Nowadays there were plenty of puny digital cameras that made the same sound just for the effect of it. Mick hated those.

He wasn’t the best-looking guy in the world, but he’d learned to use what nature had given him to good advantage. When his buddies asked him how he did it, how he managed to get the one-night stands past his wife, he just smiled knowingly. The truth was that Brenda didn’t give a rat’s ass about him anymore. He suspected that she, too, had a couple of men at her beck and call. The bitch.

Turning off the camera to conserve the battery, Mick stretched. There wasn’t much room in the car – there was another thing that wasn’t fair, his wife had gotten the new car and left him with this hunk of junk – and he had to turn so that his left arm would have some room to maneuver.

Across the street, the line in front of the nightclub never seemed to get any shorter. New people kept coming: women who looked prepubescent and too-thin, men with elaborate sweeping hair-dos made to look casual, muscled and toned giants, fake girls with more plastic in their body than actual tissue. Mick was a simply guy, he liked his women real, even if it meant that they sagged a little or were a bit uneven. But his work revolved around places like this, where he got to see this other world that he would never belong to.

Like always, the space of a blink changed everything. Mick straightened up, alert, switching his camera on and bringing it close to his eye. The door to the club had opened and two well-known faces came out. They were holding hands. They leaned towards each other for a kiss and Mick began to click away.

Jo’s Bee [Flash Fiction]

In a pinch, anything will do, Jo thought. She wondered whether she should write the sentence down in the little purple notebook that she carried with her, but decided it wasn’t important enough. She watched a bee climb higher onto a flower. Its furry body was enticing, a stuffed-animal in miniature, and she longed to touch it, to stroke its back gently with a finger and feel the hairs tickle her flesh.

She moved very slowly, trying to position herself so that she could see what the bee was doing inside the flower. She couldn’t remember how they carried pollen; did it stick to their legs or their bodies? If it was to the legs, was it the back or front ones? And what about that thing people always said, that bees weren’t, technically, supposed to be able to fly? She’d heard someone say that if you could convey to a bee that it wasn’t supposed to fly, it would fall right out of the air. A beard and rimless glasses shaped themselves in her mind around a thin-lipped mouth saying the words, trying to explain the concept of conceptual reality to her (and that was an issue in itself: the concept of something conceptual? It was all very confusing.). She thought of whispering softly, in bee-language, “You can’t really fly, you know,” but decided it would be much too cruel.

A shadow fell over her, the bee and the flower. Jo didn’t move, and neither did the flower, but the bee was startled and flew away. “Wait,” Jo called to it. “Come back!” But it was gone. She turned to the possessor of the offending shadow. “Look what you did!”

“What did I do?”

“You scared the bee away.”

“I did no such thing. Come, dear, supper is being served. There’s green jello for dessert today – your favorite!”

Jo sighed, but she allowed herself to be helped up and steered inside. She suddenly had an idea. “Can I have honey with my tea and toast?”

“Honey? Why, of course you may, dear. You never ask for anything special, you’re so good, I’m sure we can give you some honey today as a treat.”

“Good.” Jo pulled the notebook out of her pocket and stopped for a moment to write down the following:

If you can’t watch the bee collecting pollen, at least you can taste a little honey. In a pinch, anything will do.

Gertrude’s Conscience

“Gertrude?” the clerk at the DMV smirked involuntarily when he read the name. He stifled his sneer as best he could, but she’d already seen and noticed it, as she always did.

“Yes, um, so can I please renew my license?” she asked quickly. She wanted to get the whole thing over with. The clerk asked her to wait a moment and went to a back room to do whatever it is they did at the DMV that took so damn long.

Gertrude sat, unmoving, on the uncomfortable plastic chair and fumed quietly. She cursed her parents for the umpteenth time for giving her such an old-fashioned name. She’d learned to like it in her teens because she felt it gave her an air of fragile antiquity and maybe some sort of old-fashioned elegance. But now, in her mid-twenties, she was learning to hate it again. Her boyfriend always told her he loved it, but they’d been together for so long that she never took his compliments seriously anymore.

She looked up at the large clock and sighed. She’d been waiting in line for what felt like forever, and now the sneering clerk with his comb-over and his ugly, crooked teeth was chatting, quite audibly, with one of his coworkers while he waited for something to come out of the printer. Gertrude stared at him sullenly, but looked away quickly when she realized that he might look back and see her watching him.

Instead, she put her head down and examined her nails. They were too long again, and she was much too lazy to paint them. It just didn’t seem important anymore, this having nice nails business. She just wanted them short enough so as not to be in her way and damn appearances. But even as she thought that, Gertrude scoffed inwardly at herself. She still cared about her looks, much more than she ought to. She felt the nape of her neck tingle right now, in fact, and was sure that one of the fussy, mean old ladies who were in line was watching her and frowning at the tattoo that was clearly visible on that area.

Gertrude felt that everyone disapproved of her, no matter where she went. Whether she was buying books that were technically considered teen-novels or walking into a designer-clothing store, she felt as if people stared and watched her, thinking that she was strange and odd and altogether not quite right.

Being not quite right didn’t bother her when she was alone. In fact, within her circle of family and friends she enjoyed being the odd one out. She liked having unique tastes and being considered a bit of a strange bird. In fact, she took offense when she was told that she was too normal. She felt that being normal was boring, wrong even. Especially as she wanted to be a teacher. Teachers needed to be odd, special, or plain nuts in order to have an effect on their pupils. Gertrude was convinced of this because the only teachers she’d ever had who had any impact on her were the weird ones that people laughed at but listened to.

It was only when she was out and about on her own that Gertrude felt uncomfortable. She kept her head down as often as possible so as to hide the large birth-mark that covered half her cheek with a purple tinge. In those moments of honesty to herself, she knew that she was hiding herself more than the birth-mark and that it only gave her an excuse to do so.

“Excuse me, Miss?” the clerk was back and had apparently decided that he couldn’t say her name without laughing. His formal address to her was almost more insulting than her name said with a snicker.

“Yes?” she answered, raising her eyes and looking at him politely. Like most clerks, he didn’t meet her eyes. She always tried to meet everyone’s eyes when she spoke to them, almost defiantly, as if to prove something.

“I’m sorry but you didn’t fill out the proper forms online, so we can’t renew your license yet,” the clerk said without sympathy. He was already looking behind her, his hand hovering over the button that would make the screen flash and the next number called.

“I did fill them out,” Gertrude said quickly, before he could dismiss her. “Can you check again, please? If you don’t have them then I’ll fill them out right now,” she offered eagerly.

The clerk emitted a little noise of distaste and impatience and without a word got up and went back to the computers that for some inexplicable reason weren’t set on the clerks’ desks.

Gertrude hated him for a few moments before reminding herself not to be a mean, selfish and judgmental idiot. She looked down again and tried her best to imagine the clerk as a good person who had a family and friends and belonged to another life that didn’t consist of the DMV. It was hard to imagine, but she nevertheless tried, in order to stop feeling bad about herself for hating someone so fiercely that it hurt.

 

Joshua

Josh put down the Starbucks paper cup and breathed a sigh of relief. He’d been craving his chai latte since three in the morning when he first woke up. The dreams were back, and he was sleeping worse than ever. His therapist kept asking him if he could describe them, and he tried, he really did, but the problem was that the moment he talked about his dreams, they’d flee his mind. It was as if the contents of his horrible nightly escapades were only alive when they could torture him, and him alone. If he tried to confide in anyone else, he would suddenly find that he couldn’t grasp any detail of dream. He wouldn’t find the words to describe the monstrous visions or the frightening scenarios, and he’d finally fall silent, muttering feebly that he knew the dreams were horrible but simply couldn’t remember them at present. His therapist thought that he was repressing something, and was very worried about him.

If he was being honest with himself, Josh was worried too. The last time he’d had the dreams was when he started law school. They’d caused him to drop out after a while, and he’d spent almost a year in a haze of pot, occasional boozing and general self-destruction. It took him a long time to force his life back together. He’d felt like Humpty Dumpty for years, putting himself together piece by piece because all the king’s horses and all the king’s men had given up on him.

Now he was thirty-five and was the manager of the distribution offices in a company that sold furniture. It wasn’t an impressive job by any means – his office was one of many that were spread around the country, and so there were some fifty other people in the company with the exact same job title as him. That wasn’t to say that he hadn’t worked hard to reach this position. He had, and he’d suffered for a few years at the entry level customer service before he began climbing the ranks. All in all, he was pleased with his job. He had his own office on the tenth floor with a view of the courtyard that his building shared with the other five in the office complex that was comfortably nestled in Downtown.

Josh rubbed his eyes and tried to wake himself up. Since three that morning he’d dozed on and off until six, when the alarm clock rang and his day began. He’d gone to bed at one in the morning, so he had, in reality, a total of two hours sleep. He smiled as he took another sip of his chai latte. At least his slow and tentative relationship with Mia wasn’t being screwed up by his dreams. She’d kissed him sweetly last night after they’d enjoyed a glass of red wine at the bar he took her to after dinner. They’d talked for hours, sipping their wine slowly in a corner table and enjoying the dim light of the bar that made them feel as if they were all alone. When he’d walked her home, she’d kissed him at the door, called him a perfect gentleman, and then, with that ever-surprising grin of hers, she’d ducked into the building and shut the door firmly behind her. He’d walked back to his own apartment in a delirious daze.

Mia had been part of his life for two years, although she hadn’t realized how much she’d meant to him. She’d been serving him chai lattes, apple pie slices and chocolate chunk cookies at Starbucks almost every morning since she’d started working there and Josh had fallen for her just a little bit more every day. He’d finally gotten the guts to ask her out after she’d been promoted to assistant manager of her branch and wasn’t working at the counter anymore. Josh’s therapist was very proud of him and felt that this was definitely a positive step forward in his constant struggle to keep the normal, functioning life he’d built for himself.

He hadn’t told Mia about his dreams. He hadn’t even tried. They’d been going out for over a month, but Mia, as she told him last night, was in a precarious emotional state. She had survived a badly abusive relationship and had abstained from going out with men for about three years. Josh was the first man she’d felt comfortable enough to go out with, and her own therapist, she reported to Josh, was proud of her as well. They’d joked about having a conference call with their respective psychologists and fixing them up. They’d also wondered idly whether the two were married already without their patients’ knowledge.

But Mia had kissed him, finally, and Josh was ecstatic. As he finally turned from the window in his office toward his computer and the work that was waiting for him, he decided that he’d call her later that afternoon and tell her that he’d had an incredible time last night and that he hoped to see her again. Soon.

He reached for his diary and checked which tasks he’d written down that were a priority that morning. He decided to get the phone calls over with first and then turn to the stack of reports that were awaiting his scrutiny. It was as he clicked on the speaker-phone button that he remembered that Mia had been in his dream. His hand froze over the buttons and eventually the dial tone was replaced with the beep-beep-beep of a phone off the hook. Josh sat still as a stone as horrible visions flashed through his mind again, Mia’s face featuring clearly in them.

Finally, he turned off the speaker and held up his Starbucks cup. He stared at it, unseeing, and turned it around and around in his hands. Not Mia, he thought, pleading with his subconscious. Please, not Mia…

One Good Thing

Jodi lay on what she knew to be her deathbed, and thought about life. It was impossible for her to think about death. She’d been thinking about death for the past three years, ever since the doctors had found the first tumor. But in a few hours, the doctors said, she would die. They’d offered her morphine, to ease the pain, but she’d refused. It wasn’t because she was particularly strong, nor because she desired to suffer. It was merely that she wanted to think about life a little before she died, and she knew that she wouldn’t do that in the blissful haze that morphine gave her.

She wasn’t a very good woman. Ninety-three years old and her neighbors had been wishing her dead for two decades already. She knew that no one liked her. But that was alright. She’d realized sometime during her sixties that she didn’t like herself much either. At first she went to therapy and tried to fix herself. After four sessions, she’d decided that there was no reason to fix something that had been broken for so long, and anyway, Doctor Haddock was simply gaga.

Lying in the stinking hospital room, on her soiled sheets, Jodi wondered whether she’d done anything good in her life. She thought of her children, and concluded that they turned out to be good people despite her, not because of her. Her husband of forty-five years had died a long time ago, and she didn’t think that she’d made his life better. She thought, upon reflection, that he would have done better to have married his mistress when he started having an affair. She didn’t begrudge him anymore. Her grandchildren she hardly knew, although they were all in their twenties and probably having babies of their own by now. But her children had both run away to far corners of the earth, and so she’d never come to know their offspring well. Better this way, really, because her death wouldn’t be of much notice to anyone.

But surely, she thought frantically, she must have done something good in her life. No one would remember her for long, it was true, and if anyone did they’d remember a gruff, violent old woman who couldn’t hear very well but insisted that she did. They’d remember her spiteful cackle and the way she never opened the door for children at Halloween. None of this bothered Jodi, not really, but she still thought that there must have been something good in her, sometime.

A strange memory came upon her as she stared at the boring whitewashed ceiling. An image floated across her mind’s eye, an image of a red-haired girl giving a flower to an old drunk on the street and handing him a thermos full of strong black coffee. She remembered the man blessing that red-haired teenager, who was wearing a frightfully short yellow dress, and calling her “ma’am.” She remembered the red-haired girl laughing merrily, giving him five dollars – more than a month’s worth of allowance back then – and telling him to get a job. Finally, the last image she could see was of a janitor whistling as he swept the floors in an old office building where the red haired girl worked as a secretary. She remembered the red-haired girl smiling at him and shaking his hand and the man blessing her for the coffee and the money, but most of all for giving him hope.

Jodi’s crabbed fingers clutched at the call-button. A nurse came in, warily. She was new, and she’d heard horror stories about the old woman’s temper.

“Tell the doctors that I want the morphine, girl,” Jodi said in her rasping voice. “And be quick!” The young nurse jumped, surprised at the vigor in the words and hurried off without a word.

Jodi smiled to herself, toothless, sunken-cheeked and liver-spotted. She’d done one good thing in her life. That was good enough.